The second in a series of posts about what we all – regardless of location, curriculum and age level – can learn from the philosophy, practices and people of Reggio Emilia.
There is a powerful certainty that underlies everything the educators in Reggio Emilia do and say. There is an incredible clarity of purpose behind all actions, all words and all decisions. This clarity is unifying, and gives educators strength as they work together to teach in a way that is actually much more difficult than traditional, teach-from-the-box or from-the-planner approaches. This clarity makes it very easy to help new parents understand their approach, their methods, their beliefs about the capacities of children and the parenting styles that are compatible with these beliefs.
The source of this sense of purpose is easily identifiable when the history of the Reggio Emilia approach to education is explained and illustrated to you. It can be traced back to the emergence from the horrors of World War II and the determination of a group of villagers that schooling, for their children and future generations, must have the rights of children at its epicentre. Over the years, this conviction remains just as strong. But, it has also expanded into additional beliefs about the competence of children and the quality of education that they deserve.
There are no grey areas in this, no confusion and certainly no fluffiness.
The schools you and I work in, though, are often prone to such weaknesses – philosophical gaps, indecisiveness and differing practices. We believe we are unified by the fact that we work at, for example, an IB school. Yet, even then, we find ourselves at odds with our colleagues, we even work with colleagues who don’t really believe in what they’re doing, and therefore don’t really do it – whatever it is (something we also struggle to reach a genuine consensus about!). These inconsistencies are sources of weakness – they hold us back in terms of what we are able to do with and for children – but they also make it too easy for parents to pick holes in what we do. We are unable to give parents real explanations because we may not really be sure of what we’re doing, or what we do may differ so much from person to person, from grade level to grade level, from year to year that any explanation may simply be untrue.
Beyond this, though, is the sense that many of our schools lack any kind of genuine ethical stance or purpose beyond teaching some kids of some people who can pay us to teach their kids. This is something that has bothered me for some time as I look around at the world and question the impact of education on society. I think its high time our schools traced back their origins to seek some kind of moral purpose and, if there isn’t one, engage with the whole community to develop one. A real one. Not a collection of fluffy throw-away sentiments in a mission statement.
Perhaps these questions might help:
- In what ways are we, and the surrounding community, better because of the existence of our school?
- What are our shared beliefs about life and what we hope for the future?
- How much of what happens inside the walls of our school is affected by what happens outside the walls of our school?
- What do we hope the impact of our school will be in 50 years time?
I have found that, in general, educators don’t like talking about assessment. This could be for any of a variety of reasons:
- It may be because of standardised testing.
- It may be because it is confused with archaic habits like marking.
- It may be because of its relationship with reporting.
- It may be because it often has little or no effect on learning.
- It may be because it often remains hidden from students.
- It may be because methods are unsophisticated and/or don’t represent the types of learning valued by modern educators.
- It may be because it is subjective, biased or even prejudiced.
- It may be because it can be time-consuming.
- It may be because it gets used against teachers, and even students.
The problem is that, as we reject all of the forms of assessment that seem devoid of purpose, value and ethics, we risk not replacing them with forms of assessment that do have a purpose, that do have value and that are ethical. It is very easy to reject things, but it is hard work to design better alternatives. Often, the void that is left behind by the rejection of something can be just as harmful as the thing itself.
Sadly, the origin of the word is not helpful. Originally associated with calculating how much tax people had to pay, assessment has come to signify “the act of making a judgment”. Neither of these have any place in education.
No wonder it doesn’t feel right!
So, why are we still using the word?
I’m not going to pretend to suggest a better word. Lots of people have already done that. But, assessment lives on and may – either present or absent – be damaging learning.
Instead, I’d like to put forward some suggestions, and here they are:
- I suggest that educators take the time, put in the thought and make the effort to define why students are learning what they are learning, how they may be learning and what they may be doing when they are learning.
- I suggest that educators design effective tools and strategies that will illustrate learning to their students, guide students as they seek to make progress, help them become aware of their achievements and identify next steps.
- I suggest that educators make these tools and strategies highly visible to students, co-create them with their students when possible, and make reference to them and reflection through them a regular routine.
- I suggest that educators seeks ways to involve parents in these processes, helping them understand how their children learn and how they can be part of it.
- I suggest that schools seek ways to communicate, share and celebrate what is revealed by these approaches as they are likely to be much more accurate representations of learning, and of growth, than other forms of assessment have been for years.
- I suggest that we commit to doing these things with a genuine sense of urgency as traditional forms of assessment, or nothing in their place, are continuing to hold us all back.
It all sounds quite obvious, really, but this is how we represent, value and promote growth. We don’t do those things through judgment, but neither do we do them by saying “its all in my head”. For a start, thats not true. But also, if its in your head then your students can’t see it, and they deserve to see it.
It is, after all, their learning.
Yes, we all know that we should be moving rapidly towards models of education that can be described as self-directed, self-regulated, student-driven, learner agency etc… and many of us are genuinely trying to do so. Many more have been trying to do so for many years… bit-by-bit, step-by-step. If you’ve been part of this for a while, “hello again”. If you’re just joining us, “welcome to our struggle”.
Creating the conditions for these types of learning to occur is not simple. It just isn’t as simple as handing control over to students and saying “go for it”. Like all people, our students need to know what “successful” looks like and how they can be it. At some point, someone has to articulate what we are looking for from our students. In collaborative teams, this means argument, compromise, semantics and considering what the different stages of learning might be as students work towards success. Assessment should be formative, purposeful and provide students with the guidance they need… it should illustrate their next steps. The language this is articulated in should be instructive, easy to understand and present in the daily vocabulary of your learning culture. Creating the tools and strategies for this to happen effectively is a very hard task, but it is hard because it is worth doing.
This notion of “successful” cannot remain a nebulous, abstract notion in the mind of an individual teacher. There can be no “hit and miss” about whether or not this notion of “successful” is communicated clearly to students, or even communicated to them at all. There can be no half-hearted attempts or abandoned thinking just because it’s difficult or “uncool”. Teachers and groups of teachers must deliberate about:
- where the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from the students
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- how they will guide students in that direction
Guess what… that’s going to end up being a rubric or a continuum or some other form or model of criteria – because that’s the point we’ve reached so far in the evolution of education. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to move beyond tests, multiple choice, right and wrong, yes and no, good or bad. They are the thinking educators’ attempts to turn the abstract into the tangible, to convert randomness to clarity and to extract what has been hidden in the minds of teachers and make them visible to students. They symbolize the attempt to allow for more freedom of pedagogy, more room for manoeuvre, more real, on-going differentiation and the recognition that our students learn and do at different rates.
Like everything in life, there’s some amazingly good examples out there, and there’s some incredibly bad ones, and a whole lot in-between. What makes them amazingly good is thought. What makes them incredibly bad is lack of thought (I feel a rubric coming…). If you’re not a fan of rubrics or continuums, or don’t think they’re fashionable… come up with another way of doing what’s in the bullet points above and share it with everyone. Fashion designers don’t ditch the previous season’s designs and tell everyone to go around naked until someone randomly suggests an article of clothing! They come up with new designs, they innovate. I’m sure everyone in education would be very interested to see what you come up with, although I can’t promise a “Paris Rubric Week” any time in the near future!
Let’s face it, without guidance, most students would be completely lost… largely because their teachers would be equally lost because they never really bothered to discuss what the learning was really about. The “blind leading the blind” is never used as a positive example, unless as a joke.
Our job is not a joke.
Now, of course, the ideal situation is for students to be defining “successful” in their own terms, in the contexts that they design instead of those designed by teachers, setting their own goals, and to be articulating:
- where they think the learning is going
- what they’re looking for from themselves
- what they’re looking for from their peers
- how they might reach – or get close to that
- who might guide them in that direction
But… guess what… they’re going to need their teachers to work with them on those things. They’re going to need to get good at doing those things… they are skills that are developed in steps (sound familiar?). Teachers will be need to be observing, noticing, assessing and giving useful feedback/feedforward about how the students are learning, the levels of autonomy or independence they are demonstrating, their ability to reflect on themselves and use those reflections to move forwards. But how will they make sure they’re using a common language? How will they make sure they have a shared vision of what “good looks like”? How will they ensure they’re consistent in their support and guidance for students? How will they make sure they appreciate the steps students take as they make progress? How will they help their students appreciate their own development?
Right now, I don’t see a better way to frame those conversations and decisions than in the collaborative creation of rubrics or continuums. Do you?
So, make your rubrics or continuums about that. And if you don’t like rubrics or continuums, come up with another way of communicating with students about their learning, share it and be a person who is part of the evolution of education, not a person who gets in our way while we try to do so.
I often hear people who are reluctant to talk about assessment tools use the very clever line about “thinking outside the box”… probably because (yes, its subtle) many of them look like boxes. It’s scary that creative people use this sort of reasoning as they seem to forget – almost instantly – how useful boxes are, how beautiful they can be, how many sizes, colours and shapes they come in and how they can be transformed into other things.
Sometimes I watch toxic forms of entertainment media by mistake. I may make this mistake by being fooled into thinking I’m enjoying it… Game of Thrones fell into that category until I became aware of how disgusting it was to watch an endless stream of people have their throats slit, and how it was preparing us all for the current political climate of not knowing who to trust (i.e. nobody).
Today, I allowed myself to watch Triple 9 as a form of masochistic entertainment and to educate myself about what mainstream crap people are flocking in their millions to watch. Like most shows and movies at the moment, it’s mainly about the fact that you never know who is good or bad. Dirty cops, bent politicians, self-serving narcissists with blood on their hands, decent people forced into crime by their circumstances, repulsive gangsters with a vocabulary of 7 words. This is the portrayal of cool, this is what is being transmitted to us all as “normal”, as “how it is”.
Sure, kids shouldn’t be watching this toxic stuff… but they do. Here in Vietnam, I have seen babies glued to iPad screens watching cool American people shoot each other. I know of 8-year-olds who’ve seen every episode of Game of Thrones. I know many kids who’ve seen Breaking Bad. They’re not only being fed toxic food, but their minds are being poisoned too. The message? Shooting people is not only the norm, it’s also kind of cool.
And then, there’s the adults. The countless bored adults sitting at home getting a thrill every time some mediaeval prince’s throat gapes open, getting an adrenaline rush watching heavily armed robo-soldiers massacre villagers, gripping the seat as yet another car chase scene takes the lives of innocent faceless families on their way home from the supermarket, thinking their intellect is being stimulated as they try and figure out what side – if any – Jack Bauer or Jason Bourne is on, momentarily feeling an emotion before forgetting the image of another hooker all cut up and mutilated in a dumpster to focus on the latest supercool, unshaven renegade detective light up a smoke and sip a glass of bourbon in a dimly lit bar.
You see… I get the distinct feeling that the education we provide counts for nothing as long as the media continues to toxify, misdirect, confuse, anesthetize and desensitize us. As long as the people behind the media control what we watch, they control how we think, feel and behave. The vast majority of us who consistently absorb all of this are educated… well, we went to school and university at least. Genuinely educated? Perhaps not. If we can’t see we’re being manipulated then we’re just not that smart, are we? If we are willing to tolerate glitzy, high-budget forms of entertainment portraying everything that is wrong with the world while ignoring the fact that there are real things that need to be done… well… we’re not moving on that quickly, are we?
If I had the time, I would love to do a full inquiry into the income generated by bloodgutsmurderlyingwarviolence movies compared with movies that make you feel good, or tell a story of ethics. First off, the hunt for examples of the latter would be over very fast. Secondly, the data – I am sure – would be so grossly unbalanced as to make it appear completely ridiculous.
I’d like to see Hollywood and its equivalent in whatever countries are making this stuff start to take some responsibility for the effect they have on people, which probably won’t happen. So, we have a few choices:
- Detox – don’t watch any of it, and try and help other people do the same thing
- Prepare – teach people to understand media, the real reasons its produced and what effect it might be having on them and others
The first option is not a reality… you only have to think about how traffic slows down so everyone can take a good look at the grisly remains of a car crash (or the disappointment when there’s nothing to see) to understand the animalistic desire to torment ourselves with disturbing or distressing imagery and emotions.
So, perhaps the only answer is a hard-hitting approach towards teaching critical media consumption, from an early age. Stop blocking stuff and denying the existence of anything mildly controversial in schools and get real. Get it out in the open and have some discourse with students about it. We need to be helping them learn how to think… but I feel like we’re still only generating an endless stream of thoughtless consumers. Mainly because most of us are thoughtless consumers too!
Recently, Kelli and I were talking about why teaching can be so exhausting. She used the analogy of Salmon swimming upstream to illustrate how we are so often doing what we do in the face of so many other contradictory and conflicting forces.
These forces may sometimes be policies and expectations put in place by governments and education departments based on decisions which are often made by people with little or no educational background apart from the fact that they went to school. In many cases, these policies and expectations are in complete conflict with what educators know to be true about children and learning. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be policies and expectations that are put in place by school boards or leadership teams. Many school boards are composed of people who have little or no educational background apart from the fact they went to school. And many leadership teams consist of educators so long out of the classroom and so distanced from the realities of day-to-day teaching that they are referring to how things were, or should have been, 20 or 30 years ago. And so, most teachers play the game while still trying to do what they believe is right even though their ability to do so (and their time, space and energy to do is) is dwindling.
In other cases (or if you’re really unlucky, at the same time) the forces may be the patterns of behaviour and trends that exist around you all in everyday life outside school. Students may be consistently exposed to things that go against everything you hope to be instilling in them while they are with you, such as vast differences between rich and poor, an abusive class system, the systematic destruction of the environment, institutionalised racism, corrupt officials and police, blatant consumerism and greed and disregard for human life. And so some teachers try to get their students involved in doing something about these problems, and this is great. But, all too often the overwhelming feeling that they’re only scratching the surface burns people out or the transient nature of many international schools means projects are not sustained. And so, teachers and students do what they do inside a sort of bubble of safety, security and sanitisation while still trying to open their students’ eyes to reality.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really unlucky) the forces may be the parents and what they believe about parenting. Teachers may be consistently trying to reverse the damaging effects of different parenting styles, such as children who have “learned helplessness”, children who are overprotected, children who are under too much pressure to be academically successful, children who are over-scheduled, children who are unable to relax without a screen in front of them, children who are not getting enough sleep, children who eat a damaging diet, children who are being medicated and children who are being brought up with worrying political and ethical beliefs. And so, teachers do what they do in the hope that their 8 hours or so each day with these children can, in some way counteract what is happening at home and give them a refuge, increase their confidence and self-esteem, reveal different perspectives to them and, perhaps most importantly, help them learn how to figure things out for themselves.
In other cases (or if you’re really, really, really unlucky) the forces may be the what the parents believe is, or should be, a good education. Many parents’ only point of reference about education is their own experience. Some of the more enlightened parents look back at aspects of their education and hope, more than anything else, that their children don’t have to “go through that”. Many, though, hark back to their education with rose-tinted glasses and put pressure on modern teachers to replicate those practices despite the fact that pedagogical research, as well as the world itself, has moved on since then. And so, teachers are charged with the responsibility of not only educating children but also educating parents about how they are educating their children!
The Salmon swimming upstream is a great analogy for what it’s like to be a teacher. At least, a teacher who is determined to stay up-to-date with pedagogical research and contemporary practice, who is determined to teach the child and not just the content, who is determined to be part of creating generations of young people who can give themselves and the next generation a better existence and who is determined to make the most of the privilege that it is to have such a direct impact on the lives of so many people. If not, I guess they’re just swimming along with the current… which is, of course, much easier, much less energy-sapping and involves a lot less thought!
The ebbs and flows of exciting new job prospects and recruitment is slowing down to rest dormant for another cycle in international schools. More on this later in the post. Let’s pause for a moment and wind back to August before going any further.
You’re in August, just returned after a relaxing break, time to ponder and consider if you are staying on or moving on, as your contract is a perishable item, just like long-life milk in aisle 4. Before you know it, you find yourself in October (some schools drop the ‘letter of intent’ much earlier than this). You have to resign before squaring away that next job.
What to do? Am I fulfilled? Have I outgrown this place? Am I happy? Do I offer something unique? The questions, the introspection, the game of romanticizing and flirting with the dozens of possibilities of potential schools begins to become real. Then the practicalities and gravity of moving sets in…. shipping, housing, Visas, notarization, friends, the comfortable life you’ve created, police checks….. here we go again.
So you’re now leaving and have a good 6 months left at the school which saw something special in you when they first took you on. They hired you on all the skills, knowledge and passion for learning that you were bringing with you. Life was good. The cycle turns and rolls effortlessly.
And this is where ‘the game’ becomes interesting….
Who are you once you have a foot out the door? You’ve signed and secured a new contract somewhere else. Good for you!
How are you going to spend your remaining 6 months? What is your legacy? How do you want to be remembered? I believe that the true colors of who one really is, shine through in the last 6 months of their contract. This is when you see someone in their full light. Their morals, their values, their ethics, their desire, their essence, their personality, their qualities, their core…..
Are you someone who begins to:
- arrive late to work?
- use all your sick days?
- say less? do less?
- leave at 4 on the dot?
- gossip and be more negative
- and on and on…..
Or are you someone who:
- gives their best and remains consistent?
- contributes at meetings?
- turns up to organized events and supports them?
- is positive and works hard?
- still cares about learning and growing?
- has the desire to ‘finish’ well, right up to the middle of June?
- and on and on…..
I believe that school leadership and administration needs to connect with the schools that teachers are going to and share some ‘home truths’ with how things have turned sour (or not) in the remaining 6 weeks of the year. More like a follow-up conversation, a hand over. Sharing an appraisal or goals. We do that with our students, why not educators….. Maybe this would work…. maybe not. There has to be a way to circle things back.
Sure, leaders can have conversations with those who flag and meander. I think there is a missing link from the beginning of August. The ‘sun setting stage’ of one’s time in a school says a lot about someone. The approach we need to take should go beyond the signing of a new contract and hoping they stay true and consistent to what they have shown and been like.
Let’s finish well, let’s finish how we started!
Why do we have to manage grown adults ‘out of’ and ‘in to’ schools?
Whenever something bad has happened in the early years section of any of the schools I have worked in, I have always thought about this clip. Those unfortunate soldiers at the frontline of war who sacrificed themselves to protect the others, further back, further from the danger.
This is a comparison I have been making, mentally, for many years… probably since my wife became an early years teacher in a fee-paying international school. You see, what we have to realise and remember about early years teachers is that:
- they are the most at risk of scrutiny by parents, sometimes being peered at through windows and even, in some cases, filmed while they try and do their job
- they are the most at risk of emotional, irrational and often inappropriate outbursts by parents
- they are the ones who have to immediately justify their practices to parents who understand little or nothing about a contemporary education
- they are the ones most underestimated by other teachers and people in leadership positions
- they are the ones who do a thousand invisible things every day only to be questioned about one of them
- they are the ones who deal with faeces, urine, vomit, snot, tears, physical violence and tantrums with unconditional love and patience
- they are the ones who are treated like subservients because it’s often the first year or two that parents have paid for the “service” of education
- they are the ones who have to counteract poor parenting decisions in their purest form
So, next time you see an early years teacher… give them a smile.
They’re at work again, making things just that little bit easier for teachers of every subsequent grade level. They’re at work again, because despite all of the harsh realities in my list above, they absolutely love their jobs and wholeheartedly believe in what they do.